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Space Weather Forecast for Pluto: Gusty, Gassy and Cool

Wondering how the space weather will be around Pluto this summer? Scientists working with NASA's New Horizons mission are predicting gusts of charged particles with speeds up to 1 million mph (1.6 million kilometers per hour) that will slow as they interact with the dwarf planet's atmosphere.

New Horizons, which will make a highly anticipated flyby of Pluto on July 14, has already been sampling the space weather environment in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune.

"Results from those measurements are being radioed to the ground, and our team is already learning new things about the distant environment near Pluto's orbit, 3 billion miles from Earth," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, said in a statement. [Photos from NASA's New Horizons Pluto Probe]

Despite the fact that Pluto lies an average of more than 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion kilometers) from the sun, the dwarf planet feels the effects of the same solar wind that interacts with Earth's atmosphere. New Horizon's Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) and Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) instruments are helping scientists on Earth understand how that wind is behaving near Pluto, mission team members said.

Pluto has an atmosphere, which is composed primarily of nitrogen, with traces of carbon monoxide and methane. But the dwarf planet's air is extremely thin, and it's slowly escaping into space.

"For some unknown reason, the sun has been blowing less hard over the past decade and a half, and we are seeing the weakest solar wind of the space age," said New Horizons co-investigator Dave McComas, who is also a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. "A weaker solar wind means that the size of the region where the solar wind interacts with the planet's escaping atmosphere is expanded beyond our earlier predictions."

And that means New Horizons may start passing through Pluto's atmosphere several hours before the close approach, resulting in "a scientific bonanza" of information about its composition and escape rate, said mission co-investigator Fran Bagenal, from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

— Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Space.com on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

Want to help name something on Pluto or Charon? NASA and the SETI Institute have extended their campaign to solicit potential names for geological features discovered on the dwarf planet and its biggest moon. The deadline is no longer April 7. Now it's April 24. The organizers say more than 40,000 suggestions have been submitted so far. Send your suggestions or vote for your favorite names by visiting the OurPluto.org website.